The New York Times College
Skip to article
NYTimes.com Welcome, golin - Member Center - Log Out
College Home Students Faculty
Chicago Journal

Such Sound and Fury! Tradition! Einsteins in Food Fight of Words

Published: November 25, 2005

CHICAGO, Nov. 24 - The international law expert declared hamantaschen a violation of the Geneva Conventions, symbolizing the eating of an ancient enemy. But the linguistics professor, posing as Plato, said Hermogenes, a k a hamantasch, "clearly had the better idea" than Cratylus, stand-in for latkes.

Skip to next paragraph
Sally Ryan for The New York Times

Carmel Levy, left, with Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor who had just weighed in on the 59th annual latke-hamantasch debate.

Sally Ryan for The New York Times

Latke? Hamantasch? Some in the audience just couldn't make up their minds.

And the Irish statistician with the unpronounceable name - the token non-Jew on this year's bill - revealed secret data documenting a clear public preference for latkes.

"It's almost insulting to your intelligence to go through these," the statistician, Colm O'Muircheartaigh, a professor of public policy, said of the inscrutable table of numbers displayed on a big screen behind him that supposedly factored in freshness and whether the snacks were made by mother or other. "So I won't."

As the law expert, Eugene Kontorovich, said, "What's great about the Latke-Hamantasch Debate is that at a time when so much academic inquiry is spent on esoteric and irrelevant matters, the debate focuses on the big questions."

Big questions, indeed. Sweet or savory? Round or triangular? Baked or fried?

These and other profound ponderables have made the debate a sacred, if silly, annual tradition at the superserious University of Chicago since 1946, chronicled in a new anthology, "The Great Latke Hamantash Debate" (University of Chicago Press). At Tuesday's extravaganza, complete with costumes and a klezmer band, the book's editor, Ruth Fredman Cernea, welcomed a packed auditorium to "a night of exquisite absurdity."

"The things that make this what it is are so deep in Jewish tradition - being able to laugh at yourself, being able to laugh at the seriousness of life," Ms. Cernea, an anthropologist, explained in an interview. "In Jewish tradition, scholarship is serious, but it's also irreverent. Challenging the text, making fun of the text, is encouraged."

Hence, Mr. Kontorovich's extensive references to County of Allegheny v. A.C.L.U., 492 U.S. 573, 585 n. 26 (1989), what he called the Supreme Court's "most recent and definitive pronouncement on potato pancakes." The idea is not so much to determine which iconic Jewish snack is superior - the book leans heavily latke, as did Tuesday's debaters - but to celebrate their very Jewishness and inject some levity into the lethal rigor of the campus.

"Nobody ever persuades anybody," said a laughing Ted Cohen, the philosophy professor who has made fun of speakers for two decades as the debate's moderator. "I'm not at all clear what the point is, but it's certainly not that."

Mr. Cohen, for the record, is a latke man, favoring the potato pancake fried in oil that marks Hanukkah's miracle of a drop of oil lasting eight days. Hamantaschen, three-cornered Purim pastry most often filled with prune or poppy, represent the ears (or hat or purse, depending whom you ask) of the evil Haman, whose plot to kill the Jews was unraveled. The debate always comes just before Thanksgiving - just before the onset of first-term final examinations and the frigid Chicago winter.

It started as a fireside schmooze in the living room of the Hillel House, a postwar vehicle for Jewish students and faculty members to celebrate their culture rather than squelch it. By 1965, the crowd of 700 was more than double the number that attended High Holy Day services on campus. Now, the tradition has spread to more than a dozen campuses.

Here at Chicago, where 15 percent of the 4,500 undergraduates - and, Mr. Cohen estimated, "112 percent" of the faculty - are Jewish, it overflows the largest auditorium, with devotees pinning "I {sheart} Hamentaschen" buttons on their T-shirts, including ones that proclaim U.C. the university "where fun goes to die." Despite its reputation, Mr. Cohen noted, Chicago is not only where the atom was first split but also where Second City, the improvisational comedy giant, was born - not that long after the latke-hamantasch debate.

Among the eminent Hyde Park humorists - and debaters - highlighted in the book are the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who said the matter could be settled by the equation L=qH2/3; Hanna Holborn Gray, then the university's president, who explained that Machiavelli was not only Jewish but loved the latke; and Allan Bloom of the Committee on Social Thought, whose talk was titled, not surprisingly, "Restoring the Jewish Canon."

There have been dissertations on "The Hamantasch in Shakespeare" and "The Hermeneutics of the Hamantasch;" feminist critiques that take both sides (Judith Shapiro, now president of Barnard College, suggested that Haman was a transvestite, "his aggressive machismo" overcompensation); and odes like this one by the linguist Edward Stankiewicz:

But I, I am in a blissful state

When I see a well-stacked latke plate.

And what is in a hamantasch?

A hamantasch is but a nash!

On Tuesday, the debate began in the audience even before the speakers, in academic robes and funny hats, paraded with all their pomp and circumstance under the competing latke and hamantasch banners.

"They made hamantasch Republican!" said Will Cohen, 19, a sophomore sociology major, recalling in horror a political analogy from last year's debate.

His friend Al Shaw, 20, who is studying philosophy, said, "They should be," adding, "They're doughy."

Mr. Cohen, betraying his blue-state sympathies, countered, "But the latkes are greasy and slimy."

Mr. Shaw interrupted, "And working class," adding, "Only the rich elite eat a hamantasch."

Onstage, one debater used the latke-hamantasch divide as a metaphor for Chicago's baseball rivalry, vilifying the Purim pastry as the poppy-laced North Side scourge that accounted for the slugger Sammy Sosa bulking up when he abandoned the White Sox for the Cubs.

Mr. Kontorovich, the visiting law professor, said he had been constructing his argument in his head for at least a decade, since his days as an undergraduate here, while Mr. O'Muircheartaigh, who began his talk in Gaellic, said he tasted the first latke of his life - and hamantasch, too - after last year's debate.

Long before Rabbi David Rosenberg, the Hillel director, counted the postdebate ballots - 72 latke, 44 hamantasch, 2 disqualified for unexplained reasons - the winner was clear: people were searching the empty chafing dishes for scraps of burnt potato, while boxes of hamantaschen sat yet unopened.

Advertisement